I get called a lot of names around the blogosphere. Everything from “pomo devil” to “respected blogger.” (Now there’s an oxymoron.) When you’re a “cage phase” blogger (there goes another one) you write long posts defending yourself and being outraged about this. For instance, my use of the name “truly reformed” used to bring about huge posts at the “truly reformed” blogs, almost as long as mine on whether I was “emerging” or “postmodern.” But not nearly as well written or as funny.
Over at the BHT, I have a new name that’s been stuck on me. I’m a “reductionist.” Visiting the dictionary, I think I’m being told that, in regard to my Christian faith, I have a tendency to “…. reduce complex data and phenomena to simple terms.” I know dictionaries aren’t supposed to have value systems, but it that a bad thing?
I wish I could say I’m being accused of being a good teacher, but it’s a bit more nefarious. I’m generally being told that I’m reducing Christianity too much; that I’m taking a complex, inter-related whole, and attempting to simplify it excessively. So much so that what’s left isn’t the thing itself, but only part of it.
For example, I’m like someone who attempts to reduce Shakespeare to a few scenes in Shakespeare’s bloody freshman outing, Titus Andronicus. The critic would say, yeah, it’s Shakespeare, but it’s such a reduction of his entire body of work, that I’m actually misrepresenting him. Will was a better, more complex, more mature playwright than the young man who shocked audiences with Titus.
In the same way, I am supposedly spending too much time asking if doctrinal matters can be found in the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is a New Testament faith that emerges from the entire canon; as much from Romans as from Mark. My attempts to go back to Jesus, to bring my faith out of a foundation of New Testament texts and teaching/actions of Jesus, are “reductionistic.” And, in the end, I’m charged with distortion.
I believe that’s a possibility, and the danger registers with me. I also believe that reducing my evangelicalism to a vital connection to Jesus is a worthy quest that I invite all of you on without embarassment.
One of the first times this came up was in response to the posting of one of my favorite confessions of faith, Brian Mclaren’s “Jesus Creed.” (Not to be confused with Scot Mcknight’s blog/book.) I was immediately criticized for suggesting that the theology of other creeds, and fuller confessions of the Christian faith, were unnecessary complications.
Am I a reductionist? How would I answer that charge?
I believe that Jesus reveals God. I don’t believe anything else reveals God like Jesus does. That’s my version of reductionism, and yes, it does affect my reading of the Bible. I read all Biblical texts in the light of the final Word, Jesus. The Bible is a house with many rooms, but I only live in that house with Jesus as the owner, and he takes me room to room, and illuminates what is in those rooms with his light. In his light, I see the treasures of scripture. (I hope I don’t have to actually cite references for this way of reading the Bible.)
So when I come to a passage of scripture that has no actual clear reference to the Gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did, or in the Biblical revelation of who Jesus is and what he means, I make sure that I start, stay with and end with Jesus in my reading of that passage. This is why I like the “Jesus Creed.” It helps me consciously confess the centrality of Jesus in how I approach scripture, what I read in scripture (I don’t read Leviticus the same as I read Mark) and what I do with what I read in scripture. Jesus is the Word. Jesus is the Word that scripture is always speaking, and the other words that scripture speaks, aren’t the same. They are true, and they may be important, but the Word that ends all other words, that enlightens every person, and that speaks to the deepest existential longings of the human heart is the Word I am listening to hear.
So yeah, I’m a reductionist in that sense. How about an example?
The Lord’s Supper is one of the most contentious issues in Christendom. I can’t come to the table of Jesus in more than half of Christendom, despite my confession of faith in Jesus. Somewhere between what Jesus did at that table on the night he was betrayed and the half a million volumes of Eucharistic theology that fill the libraries of Christian scholars, I got excluded.
When I do the Lord’s Supper at soli deo, I read the words of Institution from I Corinthians 11.
1Co 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Paul is reading/relating the account we find in the Gospel of Mark (and elsewhere).
Mk 14:22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
There are a lot of other things said about the Lord’s Supper in the Bible. In I Corinthians, Paul has a lot to say about it.
I Cor 10:16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
I do not read I Corinthians 10 as illuminating the Gospel text. I believe the person, words and actions of Jesus are the revelation in the Lord’s Supper. Whatever else is said in scripture about the Supper, I do not believe it adds to or goes beyond what Jesus was, said and did that night with his disciples.
I have a personal theology of the Lord’s Supper. Somewhere on the Zwinglian side of Calvin, I believe Christ gave us the Gospel in bread and wine. But when I share the supper, I do not assert my theology in contrast to others. I read the words and actions of Jesus. I want those who partake at soli deo to have their eyes and ears focused on Jesus. I don’t want to fight about metaphors, real presence, Marburg or transubstantiation. I want to do what Jesus told us to do. I am particularly impressed with Paul’s word regarding discerning Christ in the Supper.
28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
As controversial as the interpretation of those verses is, I believe it is, at the root, a call to a kind of reduction, and it pertains to all of our faith. If we do not discern the relation of Jesus Christ to all things, we invite judgement.
Anyone who theologizes without discerning Christ crucified is on the wrong track. Anyone who builds the church without discerning Christ crucified builds nothing. Anyone who preaches, sings, leads, writes or counsels without discerning Christ crucified is a sounding gong and a clanking bell, inviting judgement.
I fully realize that how we discern the presence of Christ in the supper, baptism, preaching, serving and so on will differ widely as we read scripture with our various assumptions about theology, history, tradition and language. I’m comfortable with that conversation and even with the tension that results, but I am committed to discerning Christ as the “reduction” of my entire evangelicalism. Establishing a vital relationship between Jesus and my world is the passion of my life. In that quest, I freely admit that I find more help among those simplifying the faith to a focus on Jesus in the gospels than among those making it ever more complicated.
Remember years ago when Tony Campolo was put on “heresy trial” for preaching that Christ was somehow present in every person? He got that from Jesus, of course. “And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Now I realize that Campolo risked distorting someone’s theology with that kind of reductionism, and I get that some nut somewhere thought Campolo was being a universalist, which he denied over and over.
Just tell me, how much trouble are we willing to get into to go back to what Jesus said and did, and let that be the formative foundation of this thing called being a Christian? It may get you- and me- in trouble. I have a message I preach to students called “Good Trouble.” It’s from Acts 17, where the Christians are in trouble for having “another King…Jesus.” Reductionism of the best kind, and a worthy life’s quest.